Meta has announced that it’s building the “world’s fastest” AI supercomputer as part of its plans to build a virtual metaverse.
The AI Research SuperCluster (RSC), which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg claims is already the fifth-fastest AI supercomputer in the world, uses Nvidia’s DGX A100 system and is already training new models to advance artificial intelligence capabilities. According to early Meta benchmarks, RSC can train large natural-language processing (NLP) models three times faster and run computer vision jobs 20 times faster than its previous systems.
The project is expected to be fully constructed midway through the year and will add various AI-based features to Meta’s platforms, including its proposed metaverse. According to a blog post from Zuckerberg, the company aims to use the RSC to train AI models to advance fields such as NLP and image enhancement.
More specifically, Meta hopes to generate models that can work across multiple languages, analyse text, images and video simultaneously, and also develop augmented reality tools.
Key use cases will include the identification of harmful content and the ability to translate multiple languages of audio, in real-time from large groups of people, which appears to be a Metaverse-specific use case.
The RSC currently uses 760 Nvidia DGX A100 systems as its computer nodes and these pack a total of 6,080 A100 GPUs onto a Nvidia Quantum network said to deliver 1,896 petaflops of performance. Speed was also shown in the installation, with the RCS taking just 18 months to go from idea to fully working supercomputer, according to Nvidia.
The second phase of the project, which begins later in the year, will expand the RSC to 16,000 GPUs, which Meta suggests will deliver 5 exaflops of “mixed precision AI performance”. This will be buoyed by further plans to expand RSC’s storage systems so that it can deliver up to an exabyte of data at 16 terabytes per second.
This is the second time Meta has partnered with Nvidia for research infrastructure, with a project conducted in 2017, also for the advancement of AI.
Eligible businesses must also be purchasing the approved software for the first time, with the financial discount only covering 12-months worth of product costs (exclusive of VAT).
The scheme can be accessed through a government portal where applicants can search and compare all the ‘approved’ services. A tool has also been provided to help less experienced applicants find out what services they could use, although this does require handing over additional business information, such as how they typically engage with customers and the size of their IT teams.
Those that are new to digital tools can also browse a library of video explainers and tutorials that walk them through various elements of software adoption and how businesses can best make use of them. It also includes explainers on CRM software and guides to finding out which products are best, as well as a complete list of the ‘approved’ providers.
CloudPro contacted Google, Microsoft and Amazon for comment but had not received a response at the time of publication.
Netskope, a US-based cyber security provider, noted that cloud storage apps gained even greater adoption in 2021, with 79% of customers analysed using at least one cloud storage app, which is up from 71% in 2020. The number of cloud storage apps in use also rose, with organisations with 500 to 2,000 employees using 39 different cloud storage apps last year.
What’s more, cloud-delivered malware is now more prevalent than variants are downloaded via the web. In 2021, cloud app malware accounted for 66% of all malware downloads, up from 46% at the start of 2020.
Aside from its increasing popularity, there are other reasons why Drive surpassed other services when it came to malware downloads, according to Netskope. For example, the Emotet botnet that used Box to deliver malicious Office document payloads was taken down early in 2021 but ended up inspiring hackers to use Google Drive to share malicious Office documents.
“The increasing popularity of cloud apps has given rise to three types of abuse described in this report: attackers trying to gain access to victim cloud apps, attackers abusing cloud apps to deliver malware, and insiders using cloud apps for data exfiltration,” Netskope Threat Labs threat research director Ray Canzanese said.
“The report serves as a reminder that the same apps that you use for legitimate purposes will be attacked and abused. Locking down cloud apps can help to prevent attackers from infiltrating them, while scanning for incoming threats and outgoing data can help block malware downloads and data exfiltration.”
UK financial regulators are reportedly concerned about the sector’s reliance on a subset of cloud computing providers that leaves banks vulnerable to service outages and hacks.
The Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) is said to be exploring ways to access more data from the likes of Amazon, Microsoft and Google, according to the Financial Times.
Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud are often listed as the three biggest providers in the world, with each company increasingly active in the financial sector.
All three have made extensive deals with UK banks in recent years, offering services to reduce IT costs by migrating firms away from on-premise to the cloud, where they can capitalise on new technologies such as AI.
The use of cloud computing by UK banks is covered under the PRA’s operational resilience framework, however, the use of just a few larger companies is causing concern, particularly given recent outages.
While the PRA declined to confirm the FT‘s report, a source with knowledge of the situation told IT Pro financial regulators in the UK are now looking at ways to tackle the financial system’s increasing cloud service providers, which could see the introduction of additional policy measures, some requiring legislative change.
The PRA is a part of the Bank of England (BoE), which has also expressed concern in this area; in July 2021, the BoE warned that UK banks moving more and more of their administration and account online “could pose a risk to financial stability”. It also argued that the market for cloud services was highly concentrated with AWS, Microsoft and Google all enjoying heavy dominance.
Sections of the UK’s government have also questioned how much it depends on the likes of AWS. In February 2021, Conservative life peer Lord Holmes said that AWS represented “the latest iteration of the biggest player”, adding that in regards to cloud procurement, it was being allowed to “eat the largest piece of pie”.
Google Cloud has announced the acquisition of Siemplify, an Israeli-based cyber security company that specialises in end-to-end security for enterprises.
The exact terms of the deal were not announced, though Reuters reports it is worth around $500 million.
Acquisition rumours were reported in the Israeli press just before Google Cloud made an official announcement on Tuesday. The CEO and co-founder of Siemplify, Amos Stern, also noted that his company is to be integrated into Google Cloud’s Chronicle platform.
“Other security analytics platforms began incorporating SOAR as early as 2017,” Mellen said. “This acquisition is an important step in providing a unified offering to practitioners and in being able to compete more directly in the security analytics platform space. Enabling the orchestration of response across multiple tools is an integral part of security operations and has become an integral part of a security analytics platform. This acquisition continues to demonstrate that.”
Chronicle is one of Google’s original moonshots founded within its “X” programme that was migrated to Google Cloud in 2019. It was designed for cyber security telemetry, specifically to track the movement of data across all devices and networks in a bid to prevent breaches. SOAR platforms act as the customer interface for that operation.
“Siemplify was one of the few remaining standalone SOAR offerings, as many others have been picked up by SIEM vendors over the years,” Mellen added.
“Most other standalone SOAR vendors have been acquired or built out their portfolio with other products like threat intelligence platforms. In some ways, that makes this a heady acquisition and signals the end of the standalone SOAR or, frankly, SIEM. We predicted early on that the SOAR market could not stand on its own, and now it has truly come to fruition.”
Enterprise software giant Oracle is reportedly in talks to acquire Cerner, a digital medical records business, for around $30 billion.
The deal could give Oracle massive volumes of health data for its artificial intelligence services, according to The Wall Street Journal, which cites sources familiar with the story.
If it does go through, it will be Oracle’s largest acquistion ever, as well as one of the biggest takeovers of 2021.
Cerner is the second largest provider of electronic health record software in the US, just behind Epic Systems Corp. The company offers full IT services, including hardware, to medical facilities across North America and has over 29,000 employees around the world, with the majority based in Kansas City, Missouri.
Its business is heavily reliant on sales of software and IT services, but it has been looking to move deeper into new technologies and cloud services. The company recently collaborated with the Vaccination Credential Initiative, launching a global digital passport to for international travel to help manage the spread of COVID-19.
The firm is also a known partner of Amazon Web Services; the cloud provider was approached in 2019 to collaborate on AI services for healthcare projects.
The proposed deal is part of a growing trend of software developers and cloud providers finding routes into healthcare. Microsoft announced a similar deal to acquire Nuance Communications for $19.7 billion earlier in the year. That takeover is currently being looked at by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority over concerns it will give Microsoft an unfair advantage in that particular market.
Other tech giants such as Google, Apple and even Facebook have also made in-roads into healthcare, with large acquisitions and new services. The social network is reportedly investing in a new wearable health tracker.
This was supposed to be the year we discovered what the ‘new normal’ would look like. On reflection, however, 2021 appears to be a near-replica of 2020, with conversations around hybrid working and further mutations of COVID-19 equally rife.
That being said, we saw a number of significant stories that might yet go on to define the tech world this year. From corporate leadership changes to global security incidents, the industry was as eventful as ever over the last 12 months.
Microsoft Exchange Server terrorised
The Microsoft Exchange Server exploit has arguably been the longest-running story of 2021. The tech giant was first notified of four zero-day bugs in January, but these weaknesses were still being exploited as late as November.
Exchange Server is a software suite used by small and large enterprises around the world and includes email, calendar and collaboration services. It quickly became apparent just how many companies use the service when reports began emerging of mass-scale data breaches. By exploiting the four vulnerabilities, hackers were able to launch remote code execution (RCE) attacks to hijack servers, embed backdoors, insert malware and steal data.
Despite Microsoft releasing patches in March, the exploit was abused throughout the year, with hackers mainly targeting unpatched servers. The US, and other allied countries, have since pointed the finger at a Chinese group known as Hafnium.
Mixed messaging on remote work
The UK is ending 2021 as it started; with COVID-19 restrictions in place, this time to fight the spread of the Omicon variant. Specifically, the government has recommended those who can work from home should do, which was the same guidance in place up until July.
Over the summer, however, the government appeared to be divided on the subject of returning to the workplace. There were concerns, for instance, that shops and restaurants, particularly in town centres, would close down without footfall traffic. In July, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that remote working would not be the ‘new normal’ because people wanted to get back to in-person meetings and office collaboration. Just a week later, though, Liz Truss, the minister for women and equalities, called for bosses to make flexible working a standard option for all new employees. This mixed messaging on remote work from policymakers stands in stark contrast to tech giants as they strive to define what hybrid work means.
Is the UK government gutting GDPR?
It’s only a matter of time before the UK’s current data protection regime comes to an end. In June, a special taskforce commissioned by the prime minister put forward recommendations to scrap the existing rules. Its report said that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) “overwhelms people” with too much complexity and also “unnecessarily” restricts the use of data for worthwhile processes. The taskforce, instead, put forth proposals that included implementing a new data protection framework that, vaguely, wouldn’t stifle growth and innovation.
On that basis, the government opened a consultation on the data protection landscape, with some ministers suggesting a full divergence from GDPR was required. The proposals eventually put forward weren’t as extreme as first billed, though. The plan included removing existing requirements for organisations to designate data protection officers, while also scrapping data protection impact assessments (DPIAs). Plans are also underway to change the remit of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
At the time of his death, McAfee was wanted by US authorities for alleged tax evasion; he was arrested at Barcelona International airport in October 2020 and held at the Brains 2 penitentiary while awaiting extradition to America. Just hours after Spain’s highest court had approved said extradition, the infamous John McAfee was found dead.
Judicial staff were dispatched to the prison to investigate and their statement said that “everything points to death by suicide”. Inevitably, a number of conspiracy theories have since disputed this account, claiming, for instance, McAfee was murdered. It’s almost a fitting end for a man who lived such a mythologised life in tech. While his relevance to the industry has waned in recent years, his legacy, nonetheless, will live on.
Windows 11 launches to great fanfare
Microsoft unveiled a new version of its flagship desktop operating system (OS) in 2021, with the highly anticipated Windows 11 making its debut this Autumn. The tech giant once famously suggested Windows 10 would be the last OS we’d need, which might still hold true given reviews suggest it’s more of a visual refresh on Windows 10 than a wholesale change.
This OS did, however, come with a host of shiny new features, including a central start menu, a dedicated Microsoft Teams buttons and native Android apps. The upgrade also included a new store with significant policy changes for developers. What’s more, it appears the rather annoying virtual assistant Cortana has been demoted, so users aren’t forced to listen to it waffling on during the startup process.
OS upgrades are a slow process, both for users and providers, and it can take a while for the best features to emerge, and bugs to be fully ironed out. This appears to be the case here, with Windows 11 enduring mixed messaging over compatibility, alongside a number of early patches.
A new era at Amazon
Jeff Bezos stepped down as Amazon CEO at the start of the third quarter of 2021. The announcement was made back in February, with Bezos transitioning to the role of executive chair to free up more time to work on other ventures, such as his commercial space flight startup, Blue Origin.
Bezos left the company in an extremely healthy financial condition, but there have been growing concerns about the way Amazon treats its workers, as well as its minimal tax contributions. These issues, however, are now at the door of Andy Jassy.
Jassy is the logical successor to Bezos, having been in charge of its cloud computing arm, Amazon Web Services (AWS), for the last 15 years. The appointment highlights the growing importance of cloud computing, particularly in the post-pandemic world, where online services are dominant, while signalling the priorities for one of the biggest companies in the world as we move into 2022.
Facebook enters the Meta-verse
A lot of political pressure came Mark Zuckerberg’s way in 2021; the Facebook chief is fighting regulators, MPs and even whistleblowers.Still, though, the biggest Facebook story of the year was its change of name to Meta, to reflect its newfound focus on the metaverse.
This is a concept that blends collaboration software with virtual reality (VR), essentially turning work into Fortnight with avatars and so on for meetings. Facebook has invested heavily in mixed reality over the last few years, so there’s a logical reason for the move, although the tech giant stresses the metaverse should be open source and not “owned” by a singular entity.
The metaverse bandwagon is already picking up traction, with companies like Nike and Microsoft also announcing plans to build their own versions. Zuckerberg has stated Meta’s vision could take several years to come to fruition, which leaves him plenty of time to deal with the litany of regulatory concerns on his doorstep, not to mention policymaker resistance over the proposed merger between Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Bad news can’t be delivered over Zoom; that appears to be the feeling behind a thousand angry tweets directed at Vishal Garg, the CEO of US mortgage startup Better.com, after a video showing him sacking 900 employees in one savage swoop went viral.
“Thank you for joining,” Garg begins. “Erm… I come to you with not great news. If you are on this call, you are part of the unlucky group being laid off. Your employment here is being terminated, effective immediately.”
By his own testimony, this was Garg’s decision, and he wanted those 900 poor souls to hear it straight from the source. As mass sackings go, it’s fairly heartfelt; he let everyone know this wasn’t his first Zoom cull and he even admitted to crying after the previous one.
Now, those 900 people reportedly make up just 9% of Better.com’s workforce, which is said to be an organisation worth around $7 billion (roughly £5.3 billion). Could it have kept them on till after Christmas, at least? You betcha. But this is, sadly, very common at larger organisations due to ‘market changes’ or whatever corporate jargon suits.
Garg has received flak for sacking 900 workers over Zoom, but is the alternative really any better?
Last year, IBM announced 10,000 job cuts across Europe as part of the separation of its cloud and infrastructure businesses. Its HR team probably dealt with it a bit more traditionally, likely sending out formal emails or letters, but, it’s also worth noting that no video conferencing service accommodates 10,000 participants.
Unfortunately, we are creatures of convenience; you can get lattes delivered by underpaid gig economy workers on bikes, so you don’t have to endure a five-minute walk to the coffee shop. It doesn’t seem extra baristas are hired for this, either, they just have to increase their output, essentially.
This type of convenience is also apparent in the government’s use of WhatsApp for official business, while simultaneously calling for WhatsApp to compromise the integrity of the end-to-end encryption that makes the service what it is. It’s tempting to think the worst; that the Tories are a shady bunch using destructible messages to conveniently hide any evidence of alleged misgivings.
The problem here is that the convenience of technology is too often confused for insidiousness, and, to be fair, it’s quite tempting to judge Garg harshly because people’s livelihoods are on the line – at Christmas time, no less.
It isn’t necessarily malicious to use Zoom to sack people, though. Just imagine the alternative? Garg could have just left it to HR to send out 900 impersonal emails but, instead, he got them all on the call and gave them the tough news first-hand. There’s a sort of bravery in that, but, instead, we almost view it as callous, like ending a relationship over text.
The majority of those 900 have probably never actually met him in the flesh, so most of their communication would have been through video conferencing anyway. It is, unfortunately, a very convenient method for delivering terrible news to hundreds of people. All aspects of work can now be done remotely and, like it or not, that also includes being fired.
Nicola Sturgeon has asked for people in Scotland to work from home until the middle of January to prevent the “potentially rapid rise” of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
A similar announcement is expected to be made by the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, with wide reports of “Plan B” restrictions to be implemented on Thursday, according to Reuters.
Cases of the Omicron variant have increased in Scotland, shooting up from 28 to 99 in a matter of days, according to the leader of the Scottish National Party. There is also a belief that around 4% of COVID-19 cases north of the border are likely to be the new strain of the virus.
“If you had staff working from home at the start of the pandemic, please now do so again,” said Sturgeon according to the Independent. “We’re asking you to do this from now until the middle of January when we will review this advice.”
“I know how difficult this is, but I cannot stress enough how much difference we think this could make in helping step transmission and avoiding the need for even more onerous measures.”
The UK government had previously ruled out working from home, suggesting it wasn’t necessary, but the greater transmissibility of Omicron might have forced another U-turn. Sage professor Neil Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the new variant appears to be doubling every two to three days.
“It’s likely to overtake Delta before Christmas at this rate, precisely when is hard to say,” Ferguson said. “We’ll start seeing an impact on overall case numbers – it’s still probably only 2%, 3% of all cases so it’s kind of swamped, but within a week or two we’ll start seeing overall case numbers accelerate quite markedly as well.”
The decision to go back to remote working comes as the government faces intense scrutiny over a Christmas party held at Number 10 during last year’s lockdown. Some Tory MPs are reportedly concerned that the public may be unwilling to follow new restrictions after a video emerged of Downing Street aides laughing about a social gathering in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Salesforce announced a change to its leadership structure on Tuesday with Bret Taylor appointed to co-CEO alongside founder Marc Benioff.
Taylor joined the cloud giant in 2016 after his productivity software startup, Quip, was acquired by Salesforce for $142 million.
In just under five years, Taylor has quickly moved up the ranks at Salesforce and has become close with Benioff. Taylor even described the Salesforce boss as a “mentor and trusted friend” and the feeling appears to be mutual.
“Bret is a phenomenal industry leader who has been instrumental in creating incredible success for our customers and driving innovation throughout our company. He has been my trusted friend for years, and I couldn’t be happier to welcome him as co-CEO,” said Marc Benioff, chair and co-CEO of Salesforce.
“We’re in a new world and Salesforce has never been more relevant or strategic for our customers. Together, Bret and I will lead Salesforce through our next chapter, while living our shared values of trust, customer success, innovation and equality for all.”
Taylor has a varied background. Before starting Quip he helped to create Google Maps and also sold a social networking startup, FriendFeed, to Facebook, where he spent three years as its chief technology officer. He also sits on Twitter’s board of directors and was named chairman shortly after Jack Dorsey’s departure.
The move to having co-CEOs is also not new for Salesforce; in 2018, Benioff shared the role with former Oracle executive Keith Block, but Block stepped down just before the pandemic.
“Marc has been my mentor, my greatest supporter and my trusted friend for years,” Taylor said. “Partnering with him to lead the company he co-founded 22 years ago is an enormous privilege. I’m thankful for our Salesforce employees, our Trailblazers, our customers, and all of our stakeholders who help us make our company and our world a better place.”